Judge orders Texas to remove disputed river border buoys by Sept. 15

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Texas to remove by Sept. 15 the floating border buoys it had placed along its river border with Mexico to deter migrants from crossing.

U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra ruled that the buoys obstructed the flow of the Rio Grande River — which separates the U.S. from Mexico — and likely required congressional authorization and a federal permit, as dictated by the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899.

“The Court finds that the barrier’s threat to human life, its impairment to free and safe navigation, and its contraindication to the balance of priorities Congress struck in the RHA outweigh Texas’s interest in implementing its buoy barrier in the Rio Grande River,” Ezra, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, wrote in his ruling granting the Biden administration’s request for a preliminary injunction against the string of buoys Texas officials installed.

The floating barrier, constructed in an attempt to obstruct movement across the river, is made up of roughly 1,000 feet of 4-foot spherical buoys connected by heavy metal cables, according to discussion in the court ruling. Roughly half of the barrier also contains an “anti-dive net” below it.

The placement of the buoys had caused an uproar from the state’s congressional Democrats and human rights advocates, who maintained that they presented life-threatening risks to migrants who were crossing the river to seek asylum. In early August, Texas state troopersfound a dead body lodged in the buoys. The Mexican government also criticized the buoys, saying that they violated international water rights.

“The harm to navigation is clearly evident from the evidence presented, while the State of Texas did not present any credible evidence that the buoy barrier as installed has significantly curtailed illegal immigration across the Rio Grande River,” Ezra wrote.

The Justice Department praised the judge's decision.

“We are pleased that the court ruled that the barrier was unlawful and irreparably harms diplomatic relations, public safety, navigation, and the operations of federal agency officials in and around the Rio Grande,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had thrown his full weight behind the decision to deploy the barriers in early July, which he said had possibly deterred thousands of people from crossing. After he refused to back down, theDepartment of Justice sued the state, arguing that it had obstructed U.S. waters.

Lawyers for Texas immediately submitted a filing on Wednesday appealing Ezra’s ruling to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Today’s court decision merely prolongs President Biden’s willful refusal to acknowledge that Texas is rightfully stepping up to do the job that he should have been doing all along,” the governor’s office said in a news release. “Our battle to defend Texas’ sovereign authority to protect lives from the chaos caused by President Biden’s open border policies has only begun. Texas is prepared to take this fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

For more than two years, Abbott has challenged the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration, mounting a sweeping state-led program dubbed Operation Lone Star. Texas has arrested migrants under state trespassing charges and used state resources, like the buoys at issue, to enforce controls in response to what Abbott contends is a dereliction of duty from the Biden administration to secure the southern border.

Ezra was confirmed to the bench in 1988 as a federal judge in Hawaii, but has been hearing cases in Austin, the Texas capital, for more than a decade because of vacancies on the federal court there.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.